The answer for improved air quality may rest right under your feet.
“A typical carpet contains 120 different chemicals, including such carcinogens as formaldehyde, toluene, xylene and benzene,” says Linda Mason Hun-ter, author of Creating a Safe and Healthy Home. Flame retardants, stain guards, water repellants and non-stick surfaces contribute even more unheal-thy elements. “Treatments add polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorochemicals (PFCs), perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs), along with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), to the home environment,” she says.
Controversy also surrounds the popular antimicrobial treatments intended to control mold and mildew. Regulated as pesticides by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agents in these applications contain about 300 different active ingredients. And, if that’s not enough to keep concerned householders breathing through face masks, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) introduces dioxin and phthalates into the mix.
The most potent carcinogen known to science, dioxin, can cause birth defects, reproductive problems and immune system damage, in addition to cancer. PVC also contains phthalates, a class of plasticizers believed to affect male reproductive health. Plastic foam and rubber padding can “offgas” harmful fumes for months. All these components make contemporary carpeting a veritable chemical stew, and a potential culprit when people with brand-new carpeting get sick unexpectedly.
Choosing greener carpet alternatives can greatly reduce the noxious overload in homes. And natural fibers present the most environmentally friendly alternatives to their chemically doused counterparts.
Natural-fiber carpeting choices include wool, sisal, jute, coir and sea grass, and backings can be made of either felt or jute. At the Environmental Home Center (EHC), a Seattle retailer specializing in green building materials, the strengths and weaknesses of all five natural fibers have been examined.
Wool sets the gold standard among natural fibers. Durable and elastic, wool’s inherent stain- and flame-resistances dodge the need for chemical treatments. Unlike synthetics, wool defies flattening, pilling and even wearing in high-traffic areas. Many people sidestep wool because of its higher price tag, but it represents a remarkable value. If properly cared for, wool carpets last more than 50 years. Wool’s “cons” include the tendency to stain, and for water-based solutions to shrink this material.
Somewhat scratchy unless mixed with softer fibers, sisal weaves into flat or fat designs. Because the fibers absorb moisture, they shine when installed in areas without humidity. Combined with its cousin, coir, sisal produces one of the toughest plant fiber weaves available. Sisal’s main shortcoming de-mands that spills receive immediate attention, as even water causes brown stains. Because heavy furniture leaves permanent indentations in soft weaves, consumers should select flatter varieties for rooms with hefty fixtures. Also, sisal becomes slippery with wear, so avoid installing this material on stairs.
As soft as a cotton blanket, jute is perfect for rooms where little hands and feet explore. Though not as tough as sisal and seagrass, when installed in low- or medium-traffic locations and maintained, jute is hardy. Like sisal, it becomes slippery on stairs and bulky furniture crushes its fibers. Some slight matting occurs in heavy traffic areas. And jute should not be placed in rooms with direct sunlight because of fading.
Coir’s tough constitution makes this fiber ideal for indoor areas, including those with moisture. This carpeting won’t pill, even in heavily trafficked paths. When combined with longer fibers such as sisal, coir makes a very durable rug.
Unsuitable for wall-to-wall installation, coir’s thick, short fibers resist tight weaves, so these carpets may pull apart. Bare feet will shun coir’s coarseness, and owners should know that untended spills will leave marks. Rug holders prevent this stiff fiber from scratching wood floors.
Seagrass” economical sticker price doesn’t represent inferior quality. This durable and attractive fiber will soon surpass sisal, currently the most popular plant fiber, in sales. Thick seagrass yarns make for large-textured weaves. With their natural water resistance, these carpets excel in areas exposed to dirt and spills. While seagrass is no rival to the toughness of a sisal-coir blend, bare feet will enjoy its gentler disposition much more than coir’s prickly personality.
If none of the natural fibers appeal to you, an option is conventional carpeting with reduced levels of contaminants. The Green Label Plus designation provides one guidepost for consumers concerned about indoor air quality. The Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI), a trade association of carpet manufacturers, established this VOC emissions program in response to health issues associated with carpet.
“While this designation tells something about the product’s toxic profile, the Green Label Plus only covers a portion of indoor air-quality concerns,” says Tom Lent, technical policy coordinator at the Healthy Building Network.
The label targets 80 VOCs, but indoor air may contain hundreds, adds Lent. And, even with the Green Label Plus, those 80 VOCs may still be present, but at a level considered safe. Other contaminants remain unmeasured.
The lack of a comprehensive assessment standard within the industry leaves the definition of green up to retailers and consumers. “In order to be sold at our store, carpeting must be formaldehyde-free, made of biodegradable materials or recycled content, and have low- to nontoxic adhesives in the backing,” says Kassie Olin, a carpet specialist at the EHC.
Fancy footwork might allow consumers to sidestep the more potent pollutants when selecting carpeting. But, by their nature, conventional carpets continue to boost the chemicals in homes. Several strategies can reduce your carpet’s toxicity. First, ask the retailer to “air out” the carpeting in the warehouse before delivery. Second, according to the EPA, it’s a good idea to open doors and windows during and after installation. The EPA also recommends that consumers use window fans, room air conditioners and other ventilation equipment to exhaust fumes outdoors for 48 to 72 hours.
Finally, another solution for preventing harmful elements from entering your airspace comes in treatment form. The SafeChoice trio by AFM—Carpet Shampoo, Lock Out and Carpet Seal—prevents adhesive compounds, as well as other toxic chemicals, from offgassing. And, by repelling dirt and stains, the sealer does double duty.
No matter which carpeting you choose, it’s important to know what went into it. When in doubt, investigate. “Talk to the sales associate or contact the manufacturer,” says Olin. Phone numbers for manufacturers can be found on the backs of carpet samples.
“Questions and concerns delivered directly to the companies might stimulate production of products with fewer chemicals,” says Lent. Your carpet investigation will demand time and patience, but Olin points out that it can actually increase the indoor air quality in your home. And the reward is substantial—a safe, and breathable, sanctuary for you and the ones you love.